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Fools for Luv

When Murray Schisgal's play Luv premiered on the Great White Way 34 years ago, the two-act comedy was an overnight hit with New Yorkers who had little trouble identifying with the Brooklyn-born playwright's incisive observations about metropolitan living. Oddly enough, the play's underlying theme that one man's perceived paradise can...
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When Murray Schisgal's play Luv premiered on the Great White Way 34 years ago, the two-act comedy was an overnight hit with New Yorkers who had little trouble identifying with the Brooklyn-born playwright's incisive observations about metropolitan living. Oddly enough, the play's underlying theme that one man's perceived paradise can quickly become another man's outright misery had somehow failed to resonate a year earlier with theatergoers in London, where the play was a flop. The subsequent failure of an abominable film version seemed further proof that this mixed comic bag of a play, which borrows from vaudeville, farce and even absurdist drama, possessed limited appeal.

However, nearly twenty years after its award-winning Broadway run (the prodigiously talented Mike Nichols won the 1965 Tony for directing both Schisgal's play and another comedy that became instant fodder for spinoffs, Neil Simon's The Odd Couple), composer Howard Marren and lyricist Susan Birkenhead collaborated with Chicago playwright Jeffrey Sweet to transform Schisgal's play into a musical titled What About Luv? And despite the fact that a few scenes of intricately structured dialogue have lost something in the latest translation--the musical version's more formal, presentational style glosses over some of the crucial subtlety of Schisgal's rapid-fire original--Germinal Stage Denver's entertaining production nonetheless manages to strike several comic nerves about marriage, money, living and, of course, "luv."

After a bouncy overture, the play begins on the sidewalk of a New York City bridge where a distraught man, Harry (David Quinn), sings to us about his many troubles. As Harry contemplates taking his own life by jumping into the river below, Milt (Roy A. Reents), an old friend from Harry's college days, enters and strikes up a musical conversation ("Polyarts U."). A successful stockbroker (though by today's standards he looks more like a bookie, in his Sixties fedora and checked sports jacket), Milt quickly confesses to his long-lost pal that, appearances notwithstanding, he's actually quite miserable. Not only is his job unfulfilling, Milt croons to Harry in "Paradise," but he'd just as soon find a convenient way to ditch his wife of several years, Ellen (Loraine O'Donnell-Gray), and marry another woman. Soon, Ellen arrives on the scene with a chart depicting the frequency--or lack thereof--of her sexual encounters with Milt. After carefully considering the implications of her love life's meaningless downturn, Ellen concludes that she'd rather be a lesbian. When Harry remarks that the one thing that would make his life complete is the undying love of someone special, Milt sees his chance to simultaneously escape his marriage, alleviate Ellen's angst and do an old friend a lifesaving favor: He proposes that Harry forego one plunge for another and pursue romance with Ellen, his intellectual and cultural equal.

The nearly two-hour musical is performed against director Ed Baierlein's well-designed backdrop. Two cityscape projections consisting of curved patterns nicely echo the play's endlessly circular plot; and, in keeping with the production's carnival-like atmosphere, a park bench's black slats have been replaced by an intricate diamond pattern while the wrought iron is a tasteful bright red instead of the usual institutional green. When combined with his trio of performers' music-hall antics, Baierlein's astute design and directorial choices have the overall effect of lending some much-needed substance and context to what is little more than an extended musical revue.

O'Donnell-Gray leads the company with a well-sung portrayal that at once captures Ellen's understandable frustrations without grinding them into our collective psyches. Whether she's working with a hodgepodge number that ends with a mock-stripper routine ("If Harry Weren't Here") or standing perfectly still while cooing a beautifully realized ballad ("I Believe in Marriage"), the accomplished musical comedienne is always a delight to watch. And Quinn, imbuing his manic loner with plenty of verve, induces fits of laughter (and memories of The Gong Show's "unknown comic") when he wears a paper bag over his head. Reents manages to overcome his difficulties with the musical's tricky score to deliver a credible, if wooden, portrait of the wayward, pre-yuppie Milt.

To be sure, this brittle musical confection, which enjoyed an extended 1986 run in Schisgal's old stamping grounds of London, isn't as thought-provoking and richly textured as the oft-performed play. All in all, though, this toe-tapping smiler of a show is a mildly satisfying romp through the all-too-familiar woes of modern relationships.

--Lillie

What About Luv?, through October 11 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108.

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